Is the Bible Perfect?
By Merle Hertzler
We have seen how I have come to the conclusion that the earth is billions of years old, and that we humans are the product of evolution. Many of you may agree that my arguments make sense from science, but you keep wondering about how this all fits in with the Bible. Does not the Bible teach specific creation in 6 days? Well, yes, that is what it literally says. Of course many have found ways to interpret the Bible in a way that is consistent with evolution. I have read their arguments and somehow I am not convinced. It seems to me that Genesis conflicts with the science I have been describing. So I turn now to another question: "Is it possible that the Bible is mistaken about creation?"
I am sure that this question raises the eyebrows of many of my readers. How dare I question the Bible? Is not the Bible the Word of God?
But I am sorry; it does seem to me like a good question to ask. After all, if we were to declare all questions about the Bible to be off limits, how would we ever know how the book would stand if questioned? If the book is indeed inerrant, shouldn't the case for the book be even stronger after it is questioned and found to stand firm?
Some have told me that the Quran is without errors. Should I accept what they say, and never question the assertion? Or is it okay to question the Quran? Well, if I may question the Quran or the Book of Mormon, than I cannot understand why you would object to me questioning the Bible.
And so, rather than examine various interpretations of Genesis 1, let us first ask if there are any errors in the Bible. If there are errors in the Bible, perhaps Genesis 1 is in error.
I have read the entire Bible six times. Whenever I read the Bible, it does not take long to find something that does not look right to me. Here is an example: Lev. 11:4-6 says, "'Nevertheless, you are not to eat of these, among those which chew the cud...the camel...the rabbit also, for though it chews cud, it does not divide the hoof, it is unclean to you." Now wait a minute! Rabbits do not chew their cud! Something is very wrong here. How can the Bible say that rabbits chew the cud?
Yes, believers will argue that this passage is not mistaken. Some will tell me that rabbits can ingest their feces, and this has some similarities to chewing the cud. Well, perhaps, but this verse does not say that rabbits do an action similar to chewing the cud. It says they chew the cud. And the original Hebrew is even stronger. The words literally mean, "bring up the cud" And in no sense does a rabbit bring up the cud. Others will tell me that rabbits move their mouth to look like they are chewing the cud, and this is what the verse means. But if this is the case, then the writer is mistaken, for he doesn't say they look like they chew the cud. The passage specifically puts rabbits into that class of animals that chew their cud. This would not be the case if they merely looked like they were chewing the cud. Others have suggested that this refers to an extinct rabbit that used to chew its cud. But we find no evidence for such a rabbit. Besides, if the writer intended modern readers to read this verse, wouldn't he explain that he is referring to an ancient animal not to be confused with modern rabbits?
Not only does the verse appear to be wrong, but it appears to be rather pointless. Why do we need a verse forbidding rabbit stew? Hunters simply ignore this command. So why does the Bible forbid rabbit stew?
Some will look at these verses and explain to me that this is one small detail that we do not understand. They will tell me that God knows the solution, and that I should move past this small question to get into the big truths of the Bible. Now if this was the only such problem, explanations like this might be acceptable. But alas, I find many similar problems in the Bible. And when I look at the explanations that believing scholars have offered to defend these verses, I find much of their reasoning is as improbable as the explanations for the rabbit passage. Now if I am to believe that the Bible is inerrant, I must either believe all of these wild explanations--or similar explanations that are equally improbable--or I must admit that in at least one case the Bible is in error.
Let's look at two more examples of the problem. Then we will investigate the possibility that these verses really are in error.
I Kings 4:26 says Solomon had 40,000 stalls of horses for his chariots, and 12,000 horsemen." That is a lot of stalls. But II Chronicles disagrees with this count. It tells us, "Now Solomon had 4,000 stalls for horses and chariots and 12,000 horsemen." (II Chronicles 9:25 ) So was it 4000 stalls, or 40,000? Can you understand how some people look at these verses and conclude that at least one of them must be wrong?
Here is another example: The book of Mark tells a story of a miracle. "One of the synagogue officials named Jairus came up, and on seeing Him, fell at His feet and implored Him earnestly, saying, 'My little daughter is at the point of death; please come and lay Your hands on her, so that she will get well and live.'" ( Mark 5:22-23 ) Mark then tells how Jesus went to the ruler's home and, on the way, a woman is healed by touching his garment. Mark picks up the story again in verse 35. "While He was still speaking, they came from the house of the synagogue official, saying, 'Your daughter has died; why trouble the Teacher anymore?'" So we find that Jairus first came and told Jesus that his daughter is dying, and only later did Jairus find out that she was dead. Now let's look at the book of Matthew. It says, "A synagogue official came and bowed down before Him, and said, 'My daughter has just died; but come and lay Your hand on her, and she will live.'" ( Matt. 9:18) Here the same ruler knows that the daughter is dead when he first comes to Jesus. But in Mark he did not find it out until after he had come, and after the garment-touching incident. In Matthew, he finds out before the garment-touching incident. Can both Matthew and Mark be right?
You might think that these issues are trivial. Who cares how many stalls Solomon had? Who cares when Jairus found out that his daughter died? What does it matter? I'll tell you why it matters. In each case, at least one of these verses must be wrong. If these are in error, then the Bible is not inerrant, and it is not perfect. So it seems to me that the Bible is less than perfect.
Some of you will not agree. You will tell me that God inspired the writers of the Bible to write his perfect word. But even if one believes this, does he need to believe that the Bible he holds has no errors? In fact, leading Evangelical scholars admit that the Bibles they hold may have errors. For instance, the conservative Chicago Statement on Biblical Errancy (offsite) affirms that the scriptures are the authoritative Word of God, but the statement includes this caveat: "Copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original." Do you see what these scholars are saying? You may hold a copy or a translation of the original in your hands. But you do not hold the original. And they declare such copies are the authoritative Word of God only to the extent that they faithfully represent the original. In other words, they are admitting that the copy you hold in your hands may not always faithfully represent the original, and where your copy does not represent the original, it may not be authoritative; it may not be inerrant; and it may not be the Word of God. So this caveat blows the whole claim of inerrancy wide open. The copy you hold in your hands may be mistaken.
This is a problem. For nobody has the originals. Nobody knows what was written there. One can claim that the originals were perfect, but we can never test that claim unless we have an exact copy. If we cannot test the claim, nobody can be sure it is true. So we will have to settle for the (possibly flawed) copies we have. If your copy does not faithfully represent the original, then most evangelical scholars would say your copy is in error at that point. Nobody knows exactly where your copy differs from the original. Therefore nobody knows for sure where your copy is mistaken. Let's look at some sources of error in your copy.
First, most evangelical scholars agree that translation errors have occurred. After all, we have many translations and they sometimes conflict with each other. Are all of those translations perfect? I doubt that anybody makes that claim. Are some of those translations perfect? If one was, how would we know it? Some would claim that the King James must be perfect, for it was the first English translation, and God was required to give a perfect copy in English. But that view is mistaken. First, the King James was not the first translation in English. Besides, if God provided a perfect translation in English, what perfect translation did he provide for the American Indians or the tribes in New Guinea? If he left some peoples without a perfect translation, wouldn't it be arrogant to insist that he was required to give English-speaking people a perfect version? So most Christians acknowledge that the translators are human, and they may have made a few mistakes. Your translation may have errors.
The problem goes deeper. Which text are we going to translate from? There are thousands of manuscript copies, with thousands of differences. There are 1438 significant disputed readings in the New Testament alone, not including spelling errors. [1 ] No two manuscripts of any significant length agree on everything. So which manuscript will you select? Why should we use the one that you choose? If they all differ, and you have no good reason for declaring one to be perfect, then the one you select probably has errors. Most translations recognize that no manuscript is perfect, so they use a document that is a combination of many texts. Scholars analyze the passages that differ, and try to select the reading that has the greatest support in the available manuscripts. Do you know if they have made the right choices? They probably have good reasons for their choices. That is not the question. Are they perfect in their choices? Probably not.
Let's look at an instance of this problem. In II Sam 21:8, some translations speak of the five sons of Saul's daughter Merab. Other translations translate it as the five sons of Michal. Why the difference? Some translations have a footnote. For instance, the English Standard Version tells us that two Hebrew manuscripts and the Greek Septuagint support the reading of Merab. But it also notes that most Hebrew manuscripts read Michal. That explains why this word is often translated "Michal." The difference is important. Why? Because II Samuel 6:23 tells us that "Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death." That contradicts this verse that says she had 5 children as recorded in most of the manuscripts. So, in many translations, there is a contradiction here. One verse says Michal never had any chidden; the other verse says she had five. Some translations suggest there was a reason for this discrepancy. They say the other translations selected the wrong manuscripts. If they select the manuscripts that say "Merab"--even though most manuscripts say "Michal"-- they eliminate the problem. (I disagree with that choice. I think the majority of the manuscripts are correct.) You see the point. The translators of this verse had to choose between the available manuscripts. So a possible source of error is that translators selected the wrong ones. Your Bible may be using the wrong source.
How did all of those differences end up in the various manuscripts? Well, first there are copying errors. Scribes copied documents by hand, and sometimes made mistakes. But there is another reason that the copies differ. Perhaps the scribes were not honest. Perhaps they changed the text on purpose. For instance, it looks like 1 John 5:7 was inserted many years later. How do we know this? No Greek manuscript before 1500 AD had this verse. It seems certain that this verse was added after that date. Was it an accident? I doubt it. How does one accidentally insert a whole verse into the Bible? Most likely somebody did it on purpose. The verse became popular and was included in many copies, eventually becoming incorporated into the King James Version. But modern scholars do not recognize it. If you have a modern translation, that verse is probably missing or a footnote indicates that it is doubtful. Somebody inserted it years later.
Another example is Mark 16:9-20. These verses do not appear in the earliest copies. Were they added later? Again, modern Bibles indicate they probably were. They suggest that somebody came along and added 12 verses to Mark. Now, when I was growing up, these 12 verses were still in the Bible. Preachers preached that it was wrong to remove these verses from the Bible. Now we carry around Bibles that say they probably don't belong. Times have changed.
All of this causes me to question. What other insertions have been made to the Bible? We don't know. The above insertions can be detected because they were made many years after the Bible was written. Other copies existed when the change was made, and so we now have copies that differ. But what about changes that were made before copies were widely distributed? It would have been easy to make changes the first couple of times that the book was copied, and such changes might appear in all surviving manuscripts. You may think that people had too much respect for the Bible to alter it, but the examples above indicate otherwise. People have tinkered with the Bible.
Will our grandchildren find that additional verses need to be deleted or changed? Will they delete those verses just like we have deleted the ending of Mark; the ending that our grandparents thought surely belonged there?
So it seems we need to admit that things have been added to the Bible. This is another source of error.
There are other reasons that errors might be there. Even if we assume that God has specifically inspired books of the Bible to be error-free, how do we know which books he has selected to be part of the Bible? Do Hebrews and Revelation belong there? How about Macabees? The Shepherd of Hermas? The Epistle of James? The Epistle of Barnabas? Daniel? These books were all disputed for years. There were many books to choose from. Which ones belong?
The Protestant Bible with its 66 books is so familiar, it is easy to assume that these books were always joined together as one book. Nothing could be further from the truth. Christians have had many canons (the collection of inspired books). Which canon is correct? Are you sure you are using the right one?
We find no reference to a canon in the writings of the church before 140 AD. We find only scattered references to tradition and to some of the books. Nobody seems to have gathered the inspired books into a common collection. Why not? Would not the followers of Peter and Paul want to gather the inspired writings together? Would not someone make a list of these books? Would not the Christians want to know which were genuine, which were inspired, and which were not? We find no such list. In fact, many of the books of the New Testament are largely unknown before 100 AD. It appears that the early Christians did not think that these were special, inspired books. Clement of Rome, for instance, a leader in the Church at Rome at the end of the 1st century, appears to be completely unaware of the four gospels. Apparently the whole idea of recognizing an authoritative set of books--the "canon"--did not occur until years later.
Marcion wrote the first surviving New Testament canon around 150 AD. It consisted of one gospel (a version of Luke that we no longer have) and ten epistles. Was he mistaken? But his is the earliest canon on record. How do you know that the later canons are better?
Around 200 AD, the scholarly Clement of Alexandria recognized Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, the Gospel of the Hebrews, the Traditions of Matthias, Hermas, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Didakhe, Acts, 1 Peter, 1 John, Revelation, and various oral traditions. This is quite different from the modern list.
Then there was the Muratorian Canon (date unknown) which lists the 4 gospels, Acts, the Apocalypse of John, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Book of Wisdom, and all the epistles accepted today except for Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, and 3 John. Once again, this is far from the list that is recognized today. What is wrong? Why are we finding no lists that look close to today's lists?
Then there was a list from around 300 AD which includes the four gospels, Acts, the Acts of Paul, 10 of Paul's 13 epistles, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, James, Jude, 1,2, and 3 John, Barnabas, Hermas, Apocalypse of John, and the Apocalypse of Peter. Again, we find many books that modern Christians exclude, and many from today's list missing
So many lists: Modern Christians say none of these are correct.[2 ] How is it that none of these early Christians got it right? None of the canons from the first 3 centuries is close to ours.
Later developments of the canon began to approach the list we now recognize. In 327 AD Eusebius recognized the four gospels, Acts, the Epistles of Paul (possibly including Hebrews), 1 Peter, 1 John, and the Apocalypse of John. He lists some texts separately as disputed texts including the now accepted books of James, Jude 2 Peter, 2 John, and 3 John. He also lists as "disputed" the Acts of Paul, Hermas, Apocalypse of Peter, Epistle of Barnabas, Gospel of Hebrews, Teachings of the Apostles, none of which we recognize today. (Confusingly he lists the Apocalypse of John in both lists.) The Codex Sinaiticus, a surviving manuscript of the whole New Testament from that period--possibly by Eusebius himself--includes the 27 books we now recognize, as well as the Epistle of Barnabas and Hermas. (The surviving document ends in the middle of Hermas, so we don't know if the original included any other books.) In 350 AD Bishop Cyril issued an official pronouncement declaring that there were 26 books in the New Testament. He did not include Revelation. So by 350 AD we are finding canons that are close to modern canons, but still nobody has yet mentioned the exact list we have today. And this is over 300 years after the reported life of Christ.
All of these canons consist of the opinion of one person only. We do not have a single list that was published by a council of leading church officials before 363 AD when the Synod of Laodicea decreed that there were 26 books in the New Testament. They excluded Revelation. So we finally have a group pronouncement, and it differs from today's list. Do you think they made the wrong decision? If so, how do you know that you are right and they were wrong?
In 367 AD Athanasius decided that there were not 26, but 27 books in the New Testament, the list that we have today. Finally we find a person that agrees with modern Christians! But it is only the opinion of one man.
Some may argue that it took time to sort things out, and that the surviving books are the ones that truly belong. But one needs only to look at the process to see how wrong this view is. Look at the reasoning that was used to put the canon together. Irenaeus, for instance, decreed that there must be exactly four gospels, for there are four directions and four principal winds! That is not sound reasoning, is it? The Muratorian Canon rejected the Apocalypse of Peter because church leaders did not want its disturbing descriptions read aloud. Does that prove anything? Can we throw out a book simply because it is disturbing to read? Eusebius writes that he accepted those books that were accepted by every orthodox leader he knew. Who was orthodox in his view? Of course, it was the ones that agreed with him! He ignored the lists of leaders like Marcion with whom he disagreed. So we find that everyone that agreed with the list of Eusebius agreed with the list of Eusebius! Of course! What does that prove?
The New Testament canon selected by the councils at the end of the fourth century was accepted by most later Christians, but it was far from final. Martin Luther, for instance, did not accept Hebrews, James, Jude or Revelation. The Syrian Orthodox Church still does not accept the book of Revelation. And Catholics accept a number of books written before the New Testament--known as the Apocrypha--that Protestants do not accept.
Perhaps our list is wrong. We really don't know which books, if any, God has selected. So this is another source of error. Perhaps an errant book has somehow slipped into the Bible. After all, an unauthorized ending was apparently appended to Mark. How do we know that nobody ever inserted a whole book that didn't belong? Perhaps James or even Genesis doesn't belong there. If they don't belong, then they might be in error.
Some might suggest that Genesis definitely belongs because other books quote it. What does that prove? Jude quotes the book of Enoch, but we do not include that book in the Bible.
Perhaps your parents or church or denomination have told you that the books in their Bible are the correct ones. If you agree with them, then you must think that all lists that differ with yours are wrong. What reason do you have for believing that your list is right, and other lists are wrong? If there is one thing that my years of debate have taught me, it is that we had better have a good reason for telling another person he is wrong. One cannot simply go to the Syrian Orthodox and tell them that their list --which excludes Revelation--is wrong. The fact that your pastor or mother agree with you is not sufficient reason. After all, your opponent's pastor and his mother agree with him. Does that prove that he is right and that you are wrong? No? It is not sufficient to say that many people agree with you. After all, more people in the world reject your list of books than accept it. If we go by a popular vote, you lose. If we cannot think of a convincing reason for people to accept your list, then it seems to me that you ought to admit that your list might possibly be wrong. And if your list might be wrong, then you could be carrying around books in your Bible that don't belong there, and are in error.
So we may have some misplaced books in our Bible. We have another possible source of error.
There is one other error source that we need to consider. How do you know that the originals had no errors? Even if you believe that God inspired the originals (a claim we will examine later) isn't it possible that the original writers got some words wrong? Isn't it possible to be inspired yet fallible? Most evangelical scholars think the current versions of the Bible are inspired yet have errors. And they believe God can still use them. So if you think that God uses these books today, even if they have errors in them, couldn't he have used errant originals?
And so, even if God's Spirit told the original writers what to write (a claim I will critique later), we would still have many possible sources of error. There may be translation errors, manuscript selection errors, copying errors, deliberate insertions or changes, wrong selection of books to include in the Bible, and misunderstandings by the original authors as to what the Spirit was saying. Even if you do not agree with all of these sources, if you agree to at least one, you agree that the Bible may be mistaken.
With this in mind, let's look at some of the problems. Let us not approach the problems with the attitude that the Bible cannot possibly be wrong, for we have found good reasons to believe that the versions we hold in our hand may be wrong. So perhaps, when we examine the claimed errors in the Bible, we will find that there are indeed real errors. Here is a table showing some examples, but there are many, many more.
Notice that the last contradiction mentioned is a very serious one. The Bible is not even consistent on the way of salvation. In some places the Bible says salvation is by faith alone. But in other places, it declares that one must do certain works to obtain salvation. In the passage quoted from Matthew, Jesus is given the chance to settle the matter. His answer is the opposite of what the Bible declares elsewhere. He declares that salvation is based on keeping commandments and giving to the poor. ( Matt 19: 16-21) And so we find that the Bible is not even consistent in important issues, such as the way of salvation.
Now if we had to buy only one of their clever stories in order to believe in inerrancy, it might be possible. But when we see long lists of implausible explanations, what is the chance that every one of those excuses is true? The skeptic must show only one error to prove that the Bible is not perfect.
I cannot escape the conclusion that the Bible is frequently mistaken.
We have been dealing only with the copies of the Bible, and have shown why many think that the copies we have today have errors. We cannot prove that the originals had errors, but the extent of the errors that have been found in the copies have convinced many that the originals also must have had errors.
And so when I look at Genesis 1, and the apparent scientific errors in it, I do not need to develop an elaborate scheme to show how it can be consistent with the findings of modern science. It appears there may be a simple solution to the problem. Perhaps Genesis is mistaken.
You may not like to think about mistakes in the Bible. You would like to have a perfect book that tells you exactly what to do. That may well be what you want, but we are not here to discuss what we want. We are here to discuss what is true. It will do us no good to pretend the Bible is perfect. It appears it is not.
1. Aland, Barbara et al, The Greek New Testament, 4th rev. ed., United Bible Societies, 1994, p. 2. Cited by Richard Carrier
2. I am indebted to Richard Carrier's essay, The Formation of the New Testament Canon, for much of the information on the canon.
Copyright ÓMerle Hertzler 2002, 2004, 2005. All rights reserved.